ECU-based technologies featured during NC Biotech’s regional challenge

Three eastern finalists, all with ties to East Carolina University, competed in the regional NC Bioneer Venture Challenge on Monday at ECU, showcasing life sciences technology that can have positive impacts on health and economic development efforts.

The teams took center stage at ECU’s Main Campus Student Center, presenting their emerging products or technologies in two-minute pitches to judges for the chance to move on to the competition’s state finals.

BioEphX, an innovation team that include two East Carolina University researchers, was selected as the winner of the eastern regional NC Bioneer Venture Challenge. The team moves on to the state challenge where it will compete to win $40,000.

Judges heard from select researchers-turned-innovators-turned-entrepreneurs and had the task of deciding which of the three teams presented a product or idea with the greatest potential of answering a need and the greatest chance for commercialization opportunities.

Following their two-minute pitch and a 28-minute question and answer session with judges, BioEphX was selected to advance to the state challenge June 23 at High Point University. There, they will compete against four challengers from the North Carolina Biotechnology Center’s other regional offices for a chance to win $40,000.

Led by Bryan Allinson and ECU’s Dr. Robert Hughes and Dr. Jitka Virag, BioEphX is exploring a novel method to extend life in patients following a heart attack.

Ephrin A1, a protein that exists in the heart naturally, is the key to this technological advance. A heart attack creates scar tissue that negatively impacts the ability of the heart to work properly. When concentrated, ephrin A1 is delivered to the damaged area and allows the heart to begin to work better. The technology is in preclinical studies and has been shown to work in human stem cells.

The interdepartmental research venture is a joint effort between Virag’s physiology lab and Hughes’ biochemistry lab. The innovation received a jump-start with ECU’s I-Corps program in 2020 and additional grant funds from the NC Biotech. The team will work with First Flight Venture Center and Eva Garland Consulting, LLC to submit a small business grant to further their work.

As the competition winner, BioEphX will continue to receive mentorship and coaching provided through the NC Bioneer Venture Challenge as it moves forward with the process of bringing its product to the market.

The team also took home $20,000 in prize money, with the second- and third-place winners receiving $10,000 each.

Also competing in the challenge were:

Amalgent Therapeutics, LLC, led by Dr. Malcolm Meyn and Sam Tetlow: Targeting the opioid crisis, Amalgent Therapeutics is developing an invention from the labs of ECU researchers and professors Dr. Kori Brewer (emergency medicine) and Dr. Stephan Clemens (physiology). Using grants from the ECU health behavior research cluster and the Brody Brothers Foundation for supportive data, the technology repurposes existing oral medications to provide pain relief effectively and with a lower risk of addiction. Meyn heard about the technology from a contact at the university and licensed it from Brewer and Clemens. Having a background in academic research as well, Meyn said, “We saw it as a strong technology with strong potential for commercialization.” The technology is moving into phase 2 of clinical studies.

a BioNaTec, LLC, led by Dr. Lok Pokhrel: a BioNaTec is taking aim at mosquito-transmitted diseases. ECU public health faculty researcher Dr. Lok Pokhrel developed an inexpensive and safer pesticide that kills mosquitoes through all life stages. Pokhrel pointed out that the pesticide is nontoxic for “aquatic species, food crops, pollinators, human lungs and skin cells and is nonirritant to eyes.” He says he was inspired to develop the product during the 2015-2016 Zika virus outbreak. Pokhrel utilized ECU startup program funds for faculty recruitment as well as ECU I-Corps resources and NC Biotech grant funds to support development of this technological innovation.

“I am not a business student, and there is a lot to learn,” Pokhrel said of the resources provided through the NC Bioneer Venture Challenge. “It has been really helpful to think about the final product, how to bring the final product to the market and the limitations on the way.”

Mark Phillips, vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the NC Biotech’s eastern regional office, addresses the crowd at the competition.

When evaluating the teams, panel judge and entrepreneur Ryan Butcher said he was considering, “How viable is it? How successful and practical will the product be? Are these the right people to do it? Also, it’s a gut feeling.”

Connecting ECU research and economic development goals with the event, Sharon Paynter, assistant vice chancellor for economic and community engagement, said, “As faculty researchers move discoveries from lab benches or other research environments to potential commercialization opportunities, events like the NC Bioneer Venture Challenge become important ways for us to demonstrate how the university impacts economic development in our community as well as to show how scientific advancement plays a role in people’s lives every day.”

“Some of (the challengers) are building companies that have the potential for creating jobs in our region,” she said.

ECU, Pitt County Economic Development and NC IDEA sponsored the regional initiative that is part of North Carolina Biotech’s effort to spur innovation. The technology-based economic development entity works to advance life sciences across the state.

“This initiative provided an opportunity to showcase the innovative research activities within the university and allowed an impressive group of entrepreneurs to participate in this challenge to progress toward the commercialization opportunities of these biotech innovations,” said Mark Phillips, vice president of statewide operations and executive director of the NC Biotech’s eastern regional office, located in Greenville.

Prior to the challenge, each finalist was partnered with experts in the fields of business, patents, licensing and funding, including ECU’s Small Business Technology Development Center, the Miller School of Entrepreneurship and the Office of Licensing and Commercialization. A mentor and presentation coach were provided to help finalists prepare for the two-minute pitch and the question-and-answer session.

“The resources provided by the NC Bioneer Venture Challenge’s partners provide an excellent opportunity for each of these ventures to advance in their development and make an impact in the health and wellness of eastern North Carolina and beyond” said Marti Van Scott, director of licensing and commercialization at ECU.